Dear Mayo Clinic: I’ve always been able to get to sleep easily, but lately I’ve had trouble falling asleep a few times each week. What are the best ways to deal with this kind of occasional sleeplessness? Are sleeping pills OK to use?
A: Experiencing sleep problems from time to time is common. Stress, illness, life changes and many other factors can sometimes make it hard to sleep. When sleeplessness becomes more frequent, however, take a look at your sleep routines and your sleep environment. Adjustments in those two areas often are enough to help sleep come more easily. Taking over-the-counter sleep medications can be useful in some cases, but first try approaches that don’t involve drugs.
Most healthy adults need seven to eight hours of sleep each night to feel well-rested. One of the best ways get the sleep you need is to stick to a consistent sleep schedule. As much as possible, go to bed and get up around the same time every day.
Following a routine as you get ready for bed each night also can help your body prepare for sleep. For example, about a half hour before you go to bed, begin to quiet your surroundings. Turn off televisions, computers and other electronic devices. Dim the lighting. These steps send a signal to your body that it’s time to get ready to sleep.
Make sure your bedroom is a comfortable environment that promotes healthy sleep. Keep it cool, dark and quiet. If outside light gets into your room, consider room-darkening window coverings. A comfortable mattress and bedding that is neither too heavy nor too light are key to a good night’s sleep, as well. For some people, pets can be a substantial source of sleep disruption. Keeping pets out of your bedroom at night may considerably improve your chances for restful sleep.
Your diet can affect sleep, too. Avoid caffeine several hours before you go to bed. Do not drink alcohol close to bedtime, either. Although alcohol acts as a sedative and may help you fall asleep faster, as you metabolize it, alcohol actually makes your body more alert. That leads to more fitful, less restful sleep later in the night.
Don’t eat a large amount of food before bed. It may cause reflux or other gastrointestinal problems that can keep you awake. If you tend to wake up hungry in the middle of the night, eat a light snack about 30 minutes before you go to bed.
Exercising 20 to 30 minutes most days improves your chances of sleeping well at night. Just make sure you do it at least several hours before bedtime. Taking a bath two to three hours before you go to bed may help you fall asleep more quickly.
When you have trouble sleeping, distract yourself from focusing on sleep. Avoid watching the clock. Thinking about sleep often makes it harder to get to sleep. Instead, try reading or doing another quiet activity until you feel drowsy. For some people, completely changing the goal can help. So instead of concentrating on getting to sleep, see how long you can stay awake. This technique may actually make sleep come more quickly.
Don’t worry too much about an occasional poor night’s sleep. But if sleep problems persist and you have tried lifestyle changes, then taking an over-the-counter sleep medication may be helpful. When used on a short-term, occasional basis, sleep aids can be effective and safe.
If you take other medications or if you have other health conditions, though, talk to your doctor first. He or she can review your current medications to check that none are interfering with sleep. Your doctor also can assess your medical situation to make sure taking a sleep aid is a good choice for you.
Dr. Eric Olson works in the Center for Sleep Medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.